Let us now look at some of the fundamental characteristics of an ethnographic interview,
whatever form it may take. An ethnographic interview like observation is situated in the
'natural' context of the participant or the interviewee.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:21)
In doing an ethnographic interview, we bring the context into the conversation. We can do
this by basing the conversation on what we have heard or seen in the field. Or by using the
interview as a way of better understanding the participant's perspective of certain phenomena.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:41)
Let us look at this example a team of researchers wanted to learn about the ways in which
mobile phones were used by working women such as beauticians, tailors, beedi makers in
small towns and villages. The researchers wanted to interview with their participants as they
went about their day at their homes and workplaces.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:04)
This allows the researchers to understand the context in which the women functioned and the
ways in which the phone became a part of that environment and their various tasks. While
observing the women, the researchers noted that it was common for the women to take calls
from unknown numbers because many of these numbers were of potential clients and would
bring in more work. However, some of these calls turn out to be lewd calls or prank calls
Having observed this, they recognised that there were both pros and cons to owning a mobile
phone. In subsequent interviews, they were able to ask the participants nuanced questions
about this duality- accessing more business through the phone and becoming accessible to
harassment through the phone. Thus, observation opened up a topic of discussion that the
researchers may not have otherwise thought of.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:03)
This is an important attribute of ethnographic interviews that they are reflexive in nature.
Researchers reflect on observations of the context and on conversations they have had with
their participants which lead them to ask more questions, find new directions and dimensions
for their research. Ethnographic interviews are also reflexive for the participant.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:28)
The conversation is usually designed in a way that encourages participants to explore
meaning and emotions associated with phenomena. In doing this, they often reflect on their
own ideas, opinions and experiences.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:43)
Here is another example. While I was speaking to Raniben my participant in Kutch about her
history, she spoke about having to leave her home in Pakistan because of the Indo-Pak war.
As she spoke about that period of her life, she reflected on the causes of the war. At one point
in our conversation speaking about the conflict between India and Pakistan, she said why
they were fighting I do not know.
Video: Playing in regional language (3:13 to 4:07)
(Refer Slide Time: 04:09)
This phrase expresses the complete lack of agency and control that she must have
experienced in the face of the war. Even though she and her community had nothing to do
with the conflict between the two countries, the outcomes of this conflict changed the course
of their lives. In speaking to me, she was able to reflect on these circumstances and on the
impact of wars on ordinary people.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:36)
This reflexivity makes the interview processed fluid in nature.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:41)
In survey-based research, we often go out with a fixed questionnaire asking the same set of
questions to all participants. In contrast, an ethnographic interview is organic in nature. While
we do prepare a set of questions and topics that we want to discuss these are by no means
fixed. The questions, the order in which they are asked, and even the topics of discussion
evolve based on what participants share with us.
In fact, ethnographic interviews need to be fluid to enable greater reflection and introspection
on the part of the researchers as well as the participant. If you have to go out with a fixed set
of questions, then only stick to those chances are we would miss out on something that could
surface as a part of a free conversation. This brings us to an important discussion on one of
the characteristics of interviews.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:40)
Their structure or rather the flexibility of their structure. Ethnographic interviews are often
free-flowing or unstructured not based on a fixed, standardised questionnaire. This does not
mean, however, that they are casual conversations. Sometimes we go out with a list of
questions and sometimes we do not, but we all must always have a more or less defined set of
topics that we want to talk about.
Working from this set which is also called an interview guide, we construct a conversation
that moves organically between these various topics and importantly is also open to new
ones. This makes the conducting of such interviews a very skilful process. The interviewer
walks a tight rope between the possibility of exploring new topics and the conversation going
completely off tangent.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:36)
In interviewing people more often while using in-depth interviews than say during
opportunistic chats we ask for narratives, stories and anecdotes. These may be narratives
recounting the experiences of a person or a group, or they may be stories such as myths and
folktales. We believe that by listening to narratives and stories, we can learn the meanings
that our participants associate with the phenomena that the story is about.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:08)
And the last of the defining characteristics of the ethnographic interview is its acceptance of
ambiguity. An ethnographic interview is not a search for 'facts' per se. Unlike a journalistic
interview or a survey in these interviews, we are seeking the participant's perceptions and
(Refer Slide Time: 07:28)
Take back to the origin myth of the Bhils that we started our discussion with. It is not a
historical incident but a mythical one. This myth tells us so much about the Bhils, their
relationship with making images and their conception of the world. It is these perspectives,
revealed through narratives of personal experiences and folktales that are important to us.
Now that you have heard about the characteristics of an ethnographic interview let us pause
and do a small exercise.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:58)
An ethnographer is studying the lives of fishermen in the city of Bombay. She goes to
interview some of our participants as they bring in the early morning catch from the sea. She
has done her literature review and based on that has prepared a detailed set of questions. She
goes through the interview questions one by one engaging her participants in a conversation.
As they are engaged in a conversation, the fisherman is approached by a fishmonger woman
who wants to fish from him. The participant takes a break from the interview, bargains with
the woman and finally sell her some of his produce. Then he wrote down something in his
book. After this short break, the interview continuous with a researcher religiously following
her list of questions. Consider this scenario carefully.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:56)
Can you spot something amiss in her process of interviewing? Think about it for a moment
and note down your answer. Some of you may have answered that the researcher is spot on
with her interview process. She has done her homework, prepared her interview questions
and is able to engage the participant in a conversation.
The participant takes a break when he needs to, so the interview does not intrude on his
livelihood. It is correct that the researcher follows her process. She is well prepared and
sensitive to the immediate needs of the participant. But there is something that she does not
take into account, and that is the events and circumstances surrounding the interview.
Selling to the fishmongers may be an important part of the fisherman business. The
researcher could have learnt much from observing his interaction with the fishmonger woman
and what he noted down. She could have revised her interview plan and included in it
questions based on this interaction. By doing this, she could have learnt about the
participant's relationship with petty traders and their role in his livelihood.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:17)
Therefore, besides being fully prepared with questions, an ethnographic interview requires us
to be open to occurrences and possibilities that we could not have planned for. Learning from
these brings greater depth and insight into our understanding of our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:31)
Like stories, there are other pieces of knowledge that become accessible to us through
interviews and conversations. These interactions allow us to access the personal views of our
participants. Often there are things about our way of life or our beliefs that do not match
those of the society we are a part of. We rarely discuss these contradictions in our everyday
interaction with the world.
In-depth interviews often focus on the subjective view of a single participant. This allows us
to hear their perspectives and understand the contradictions that often exist between
individual desires and societal norms. Take an example here. A researcher was interviewing a
young woman, who was also a mother to a small child. The participant was an outgoing
person who enjoyed travelling, eating out and chatting with friends.
Until the birth of a child, she had been employed as an administrative staff in a small firm.
And now she enjoyed the role of being a parent. She had fun playing with her child, building
a bond with him and took pride in being responsible for all his needs. As the interview
progressed, the participant expressed her sadness and not being able to continue working or
going out as much as she would have liked to.
As much as she loved being a parent, it meant having to give up things that were important to
her, especially her financial independence. Her desire for independence conflicted with the
role of a mother as defined by social norms. The researcher was able to see something of the
conflict that affected her participant's life through the process of interviewing. Interviews
enable us to access narratives of incidence that occur when we were not present on the field.
This could include events, long past or more contemporary events that took place when we
were simply not present in the context. We can also access different narratives of the same
incident by speaking to different participants. This would give us multiple perspectives on the
same event. Each individual narrative lends a granular understanding to our research.
Community tales like myths and folk stories give it further depth of meaning. In this way
interviews bring a diversity and complexity to our understanding of a phenomenon.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:06)
For example, when I was working with the Kutchi embroiderers, one of them had made a
map of their region depicting various elements, houses, people, vegetation and so on. Among
these elements was a strip of white cloth I had assumed that it was simply a dividing line
between two narratives. Then I asked the artist Raniben who had created that elaborate map
to explain all that she had made. She pointed out that strip of white saying it was the desert
they had crossed in the night, the desert that divided the two countries.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:44)
I would have never guessed this. Had we not had this conversation, I would have gone on
thinking of it as a line that simply separated one event from another. Besides their content
there is also a sensorial quality to conversations- the sound and tone of the speaker's voice the
manner and style of speaking the words used the enunciations,... all these add to our
understanding of our participants.
Even the language the dialect and the accent are reflective of the culture or community that
the speaker belongs to. Additionally, the emotion reflected in a person's voice gives us a close
reading of their state of mind and how the discussion on the subject is affecting them.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:35)
In all of these ways interviews help us bring the voice of the participant into the research.As a dialogue, an ethnographic interview is made up of both listening and speaking. How do
we listen? And, How do we speak? These questions require careful consideration in doing an
ethnographic interview. Let us explore them here; let us start with listening.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:35)
What does it mean to listen? In an ethnographic interview, we listen in order to learn from the
other, to do this we need to create space in the conversation and in our minds so that they can
fill it with their ideas and thoughts. Let me tell you a story that I heard long ago from my
teacher. An aspiring professor once visited a Zen master. He wanted to know about Zen
philosophy and practices.
The Master invited the professor in and served him tea. The professor spoke incessantly
about how keen he was to learn from him and how he had already read so many books about
Zen and so on. The Master poured tea into the visitor's cup and kept pouring. Soon the cup
was flowing over, then the Master did not stop. The professor finally stopped talking and
exclaimed,, "Master, it is overfull, no more will go in.
Looking up the Master smiled, you are just like this cup, filled with your own ideas and
speculations. How can I teach you anything unless you first empty yourself."
This story, among other things teaches us the importance of listening.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:58)
By listening, we can learn what the other thinks, we have to know what they think is
important. In ethnography, we listen in order to understand the meanings underlying what is
spoken and what is unspoken. Let us hear a short description of a researcher's experience of
(Refer Slide Time: 02:20)
The interviewer here is Roger Gatchet, a student of oral history. As part of his studies, he
interviewed an older woman from Mexico where she had spent much of her life working as a
farm labourer. Having moved to America, she was looking for a way to build her life in a
new country. As an unlettered working-class immigrant, this was a difficult journey. Gatchet
had met her when she had come to the temporary employment agency where he worked,
hoping to find a job, as she spoke to him he listened to the words that she used, her dialect,
her narratives. He observed her expressions and the gestures she made. Through this, he
learned much about her; he even thinks that she did not speak about directly.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:11)
One of these was of her relationship with the earth, which had developed over years of farm
work. He also sensed how important it was for her to get a job in America. And she hoped
that Gatchet thanks to his job at the employment agency could help her. Much of his
understanding came from listening to the silences and the gaps in her speech. Gatchet
reflection reveals to us several important things about his participant.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:46)
It reveals the importance of listening to words, silences and non-verbal expressions. Through
the process of listening, Gatchet built a relationship of understanding and empathy with his
participant. By relating the emotions in her voice to the words that she spoke, he learnt what
farm work meant to her. And of the pressing nature of her current needs. Let us pause here
and do an exercise.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:12)
Watch this video of an interview between a researcher and participant. I would like you to
reflect on some of the things that the participants say in this interview by answering the
questions that appear on the screen.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:35)
In the video, we can see Meghiben and Raniben. The researcher is speaking to Meghiben,
asking her how far her house is. When Meghiben answers, Raniben seated next to her smiles,
what does this smile convey? How did you deduce that? What you think maybe the reasons
for Meghiben reluctance to go to her house to bring the embroider map. Do post your
answers in their discussion forum.
By posting your answers on the forum, you will have the opportunity to engage in discussions
with your peers about it. Let us get back to where we were. We were discussing the
importance of listening to our participants. Speaking is just as important. In an interview,
what does it mean to speak? In interviewing someone, we too express ourselves by asking
questions, responding to the participant through silence and non-verbal expressions. In all of
these different ways, we speak to our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:51)
In an interview, the act of speaking is closely related to the power equation between the
researcher and the participant.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:59)
If we simply listen and do not speak or share our thoughts, it becomes an unequal
conversation where we are 'taking information' without giving anything back. It might also be
awkward, even uncomfortable for the participant to keep talking to someone who does not
contribute to the conversation at all.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:19)
By sharing our ideas and experiences, we make the conversation more equal and lively. We
move from being an interviewer to someone they can have an interesting and engaging
conversation with. Importantly in speaking about ourselves, we reveal our own
vulnerabilities. This amuses the participant to feel more secure about disclosing their
experiences. Till a few decades, many researchers believed it was wrong to share their own
opinions during an interview.
This, they believe, would bias the participant. While some of these concerns are very valid,
some researchers challenged this idea for the reasons we have just discussed.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:04)
A major shift came with the work of feminist researchers like Anne Oakley for those of you
who like to learn more about this shift. We have some material including an interview with
Oakley that we can listen to and we even take a quiz to revise what you have learned.While it is important to share our own stories, we need to develop a balance between
speaking and listening. If we speak too much, we may hijack or steal the conversation. And
our participant may not be able to share their narratives. Moreover, a balanced conversation
allows us to listen carefully to what is spoken. And to reflect on the interpretation going on in
our heads as we listen.
This kind of reflexivity is important in interviews because what is said is not always the same
as what is heard and understood.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:43)
Like observation, listening too is an interpretive exercise. We may hear the words just as they
are spoken, but the meanings and references that we draw are very much constructed.
Sometimes speaking out what we think helped clarify any differences between our
understanding and the participant expressions and it helps to share our understanding with the
participants so that we may build on it together.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:11)
A wonderful example of this kind of reflexivity is seen in the work of Aanchal Malhotra.
Aanchal listens intently to her participants and actively reflects on what they are saying.
These reflections become a part of her representation.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:27)
Let us hear from Aanchal about the role of listening and reflexivity in her work.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:33)
Aanchal Malhotra: Hello, my name is Aanchal Malhotra, I am oral historian of memory and
material culture. I work with object, and the memory embodies, but in an inanimate object
cannot speak. It does not have an emotion of its own. So any importance that an object may
hold is deposited into it by people and as time passes the meaning of these objects changed
with every passing generation. The period I focus on is of the partition of the Indian
subcontinent in 1947.
While studying a migration of 14 million people to either side of the border, I often
contemplated the notion of home and what have might have felt like to flee from it hastily.
For many years I travelled across India, Pakistan and the UK looking for themes that refugees
brought with them. The object that became like companion on the way to her new citizenship.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:31)
From things as simple banal and mundane as household items to those of obvious monitory
precious value. Such an artifact would be reservoir memory and experience and its physical
weight would be outweighed by the emotional weight cashed into it over the years. So such
an object would in some ways occupy the weight of the past. My project is called remnants of
separation, and it is not just about objects from another time, but a correlated experience of
the objects physical and metaphysical potential.
I wanted to know what it fell like to hold in one’s hand tangible part of one's history,
particularly if that history was now on the other side of an impenetrable, international
(Refer Slide Time: 3:23)
How did people look at these themes? Were these things prized possessions or something too
mundane to be considered of value and most importantly could these objects be used as a
guide for recollection, could they be propagators of the past. I strive to look at the notion of
belonging through belongings to appreciate the object in its totality not is something that
blends into the landscape of the past but is a primary character around which the entire
landscape is arranged.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:53)
We often see that as memory passes and as the years passed our emotion settle into objects in
a way that they become physical evidence of belonging to a certain place at a certain time.
The object expands to transcend its own physicality by creating a tangible link to an
untangible place or state of being things mundane things like books and shawls and pencil
cases and hand-painted boxes and pocket knife all valuable things like jewellery or even
documents and ID cards remain incredibly important yet unexplored means of understanding
personal and collective histories.
By unfolding memories (())(4:39) within materiality, my work unravels a deeper
understanding of the personal narrative around partition.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:46)
And though the object remains at the centre what emerges through such a storytelling is
social ethnography, a way of livfe in syncretic undivided India. Despite the sheer volume of
inclination on the partition available to us today, we are still only learning how to speak
thoroughly and sensitively about the events. How to encompass its many facets and countless
Traditional means and narration have failed to do justice to the depth of historical trauma and
yet it is so necessary to continually express this in words and discuss it and gradually
eradicate this notion of the unspeakable. This is what I will do. I speak to people about the
(Refer Slide Time: 05:32)
I listen to them not for the sake of mainly recording an experience or just listening, but to
attempt to untangle and attempt the study the memory of traumatic time. So we may never
receive an event like partition.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:48)
Oral history is not reportage or journalism, but it is the penetration of human memory. It
asserts that people's experiences matter that the small age histories within the larger capital
age history of geographies and landscapes and empire are also important. I have numbered
many times about how reliving moments of trauma affect the people that are recalling the
(Refer Slide Time: 06:17)
But the interviewer and the interviewee together go beyond the scope of recollection
attempting to untangle the traumatic experience. Many people are unwilling to talk about the
event for many years. As those suppression might remove all traces of it. But I think from my
experience, no one really finds peace and silence even when it is a choice to remain silent.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:44)
And so after doing interviews across the world, across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the
UK, I do deduce that in crossing the great difficultly of remembering and in giving voice to
the experience in 1947 does eventually result in some form of lightness. Because even an
inactive crisis can remain a source of lingering trauma.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:10)
There is a need to talk about what happened because things have not yet settled. There is still
so much we do know about partition and it is not yet an event of the past. Its heaviness
continuous to way down, sometimes only subconsciously both for those who have lived
through it and as well as those who inherited stories and memories of it. So one of the main
questions that I get all the time is how do we begin with these interviews.
How do we approach people, and how do we start asking questions. The generation that lives
through partition obviously had an impact in their mind it remains still, and it is not
something to be taken lightly because to remember it is still very difficult.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:53)
So how do we begin to ask the questions? One of the ways in which I began starting with my
family I come from a family where all four grandparents move from across the border as
close as the Lahore and as far as Dera Ismail Khan. I started slowly, I started asking about
things because things were the way that I found an entry way into the past to approach
someone ann say, “oh you lived through partition” it sounds horrible can you tell me about it
is very crass and still is not sensitive.
But to tell someone “oh you brought this notebook with you” or “you brought this ring with
you” or “you carried your pencil case from school, how did you know what to carry and who
told you that you will never come back, did you think that you will never come back to your
home, did you think that you will never see these walls again, your room again, your school
again your friends.”
I think that these questions might seeing up their questions about everyday lives, but I want
to stress this fact very clearly that partition is not just about August 1947.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:03)
It is about the time that came before it and the time that came after it. Riots happened
throughout and relationship between Hindus, Muslim, and others did not disrupt overnight.
So what we are trying to understand through listening, through asking questions through
looking at objects, documents things like this is to build and form a social ethnography. We
want to understand what life was like before it and how this event could happen, an event of
(Refer Slide Time: 09:35)
So what we are trying to do in our questioning, in our oral history interviews is, a) to make
the person feel as comfortable with you as they can to be able to dwell deeper and more
vulnerably into their past and the second thing, of course, is to gather as much information as
we can about that time. When I go to do interviews. I have a very basic questionnaire about
where you were born?
And if they do not know where they were born or when they were born then approximately
what months or what season or maybe how old where the time partition and then you can
calculate back. Things were not so easy then in terms of birth certificates or even people's
documentation, so there is a little bit of calculation that is always needed, but I think your
basic questionnaire should be there and apart from that you should try and build on what the
person is saying.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:32)
Another thing I always enjoy is doing a bit of research on the area that the person comes
from. So if someone knows I am going to come to interview them, I would like to know
which is the town or the city or the village they come from. So I can do a bit of reading about
exactly what happened during the partition there, what kind of migration happened, what the
culture was like in terms of religion.
Was it an agrarian economy, did it focus more on shops. So my questions can be targeted to
those specifics things that people might relate to, and the other thing about working with
older people is that, and I think somebody in my generation a millennial really needs to know
this and I know this question is about listening. So it is very important is that older people
really just want someone to listen to them.
So, if you are in an oral history interview with someone who is a decade older than you, be
present because it is very important for we to know what they are telling you matters to you.
And it should matter to you because there is still so much we do not know about partition, so
we are always unerathening something. So if you are genuinely interested, then incredible
memories will come out.
But I think this is something that we as millennial forget a lot how to listen and how to let
someone talk without interrupting them.
The idea of balance is key to engaging with and learning from our participants. We need to
maintain a fine balance between speaking and listening, fluidity and structure, empathy for
the other and a desire to learn from them.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:03)
Professor Indira Chowdhury: The idea of balance is key to engaging with and learning from
our participant. We need to maintain a fine balance between speaking and listening, fluidity
and structure, empathy for the other and a desire to learn from them.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:22)
To be reflexive is also to be aware of our position in the research with respect to our
participants. Often we engage with people whose cultures and contexts are very different
from us. In an interview, these differences manifest in the narratives that are shared and the
ways in which they are articulated. Participants build a perception of who we are, our
background and experiences their interactions with us is based on these perceptions.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:52)